The Eternal Worm

MEPHISTOPHELES: The Devil in the Modern World by Jeffrey Burton Russell.Cornell University Press, $24.95.
MUCH oF JEFFREY RUSSELL’S career has been devoted to the study of the fissiparous tendencies in Christianity—order and dissent in the medieval Church, the irreparable split known as the Reformation—but he has done his best work in that deepest region where God confronts the Devil, or absolute good wars with absolute evil. This new book completes a tetralogy that began with The Devil: Perceptions of Evil From Antiquity to Primitive Christianity (1977) and pursued the history of the Father of Lies through Satan: The Early Christian Tradition (1981) and Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages (1984). Satan, Lucifer, and the Devil are exactly synonymous, but with Mephistopheles we encounter a difference that is not purely onomastic. In Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus we meet Mephistophilis (sic), but we also briefly meet Lucifer. Goethe’s Faust presents Mephistopheles as the only authentic Devil, able to argue with God in the manner of Satan in the Book of Job, but he has had rubbed onto him—not because of the influence of Marlowe’s play (which Goethe knew and admired) but because of a common origin in the popular Faustbuch—a certain triviality, not to say vulgarity, which became inseparable from the modern view of the Devil. Scotland’s Auld Clootie and England’s Old Nick are comic and vaguely secular: indeed. Old Nick probably got his name from Niccolò Machiavelli, a highly secular philosopher of realpolitik. The Devil in Shaw’s Man and Superman is probably meant to look like Mephistopheles in Gounod’s Faust. In an age that has been spectacularly devoted to evil, evil’s originator is a cloven-hoofed comic with long ears and a French beard. The Son of the Morning, the brightest of God’s angels, has lost dignity and turned into a weedy gauleiter.
It is probably salutary for our age that we seem to believe in evil. The term became current in responsible journalism, I believe, when Time applied it, with theological exactitude, to the My Lai massacres. There are certain wrongs, public or private, that can hardly be explained by the social worker’s appeal to frustration, stupidity, or deprivation. This, for instance—a report from UPI on November 14, 1984:
Cynthia Palmer, 29, and her live-in boyfriend, John Lane, 36, pleaded innocent to burning to death Mrs. Palmer’s 4-vear-old daughter in an oven. The two, who told neighbors shortly before their arrest that they were “cooking Lucifer,” were arraigned Tuesday in Androscoggin County [Maine] Superior court. They were arrested Oct. 27 at their Auburn tenement apartment. Angela Palmer was found stuffed in the electric oven. The door was jammed shut with a chair.
That, Russell says, is moral evil, an action of “unfathomable cruelty.” The Devil is its symbol, but is he more than that? The question of his existence cannot be resolved in the terms of natural science, which our superstitious age presumes can answer all ontological inquiries, but if the Catholic Church, despite the aggiornamento of Pope John XXIII, insists that he exists, it is invoking a mode of belief more sophisticated than that of the pragmatic inquirer. Accept that God exists—a definable entity endowed with free will — and it would seem to follow that he has an opposite number. Incarnate God as Jesus Christ, and the Devil he fights against becomes even more palpable. There is something structurally unsatisfying about a personalized deity warring against a nebulous abstraction called evil.
Evil has always been a theological problem. If God is omnipotent, then God is responsible for earthquakes, cancer, and the roasting alive of four-yearold children. Optimistic theologians like Luther and Leibnitz could see evil as an aspect of divine good that we are too ignorant to perceive. Ordinary humanity, unrefined by such logic, merely screams out against divine injustice. Blame all evil on the Devil and you somehow reduce God to one of two warring Manichean entities: his omnipotence is gravely impaired. The God of Goethe and the Book of Job finds that the Devil is useful: he tests man’s faith, pricks him on to greater goodness, qualifies his complacency. The Nazi death camps seem to be a high price to pay for such an educative process. Set the Devil against God and you are forced to accept free will as the primal force in the universe. Lucifer fell, and God could not prevent his falling. His love of creation, angelic and human, imposed a diminution of his omnipotence. God could stop evil if he wished, and reduce Lucifer to a slag heap, but to wipe out evil would be to wipe out free will. That is a grim but satisfactory answer.
Russell writes of the history of the Devil in the modern world, but it is not like writing the history of Metternich or Napoleon. All he can give us is the myth, the noumenon as phenomenon, the Devil as other writers have conceived him. If we expect a theological survey of, say, Nazism, with Lucifer present at the Wannsee Conference and placing his hoofprint on the infamous protocol that came out of that debate on the Final Solution, we will be disappointed. Nobody in our age, except the clearly demented, has seen the Devil. But quite a few people have read Paradise Lost and Faust, and even more have seen Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist. In an infamous enactment like the Charles Manson massacre the Devil can be invoked as the cause of sin—“It wasn’t me, sir; the Evil One made me do it” — but such an alibi fails to evoke the solid presence of the great tempter. Our Devil is a theatrical ham of considerable stupidity—sometimes, as in the film Heaven Can Wait, suavified into a hotel manager, but more often, as in the film Les Visiteurs du Soir, the fork-bearded, malevolent joker who is Goethe’s creation and Gounod’s oily vulgarization.
But the question Russell asks on our behalf seems answerable only in terms of a highly intelligent destructive force that knows what it is doing, though we do not.
At present, with arsenals of nuclear weapons estimated at seventy times the quantity needed to kill every living vertebrate on earth, we are stubbornly making preparations for a war that will profit no individual, nation, or ideology but will condemn thousands of millions to a horrible death. What force urges us down a path that is daily more dangerous? To whose advantage is the nuclear destruction of the planet? Only that force which from the beginning has with infinite cruelty and malice willed the destruction of the cosmos. If we are to avoid nuclear war, we must confront radical evil squarely.
So we must. And yet the theological optimists would say that we have been expecting a nuclear war since 1945 and, forty-odd years later, our expectations have gotten somewhat stale. The very horror of the prospect has diminished the possibility of its realization. But if we want to blame something or somebody for the nightmare of apocalypse and its fragmentary manifestations in two ghastly world wars, we can always look at ourselves. The theologians will tell us of original sin, which remains the most plausible of the explanations of the destructive urge in Adam’s sons (it is rarely in his daughters). And whence did original sin originate? In God’s supreme gift of free will, which requires both good and evil for it to operate effectively. Such logic obviates the need for a diabology. God is not wholly good, but he is under no necessity to be. He too has free will. These answers, however, fail to satisfy that need for a personal Devil which balances our need for a personal God. Jeffrey Russell’s thoughtful series of books is all about human need. □